A Closer Look: Great Lakes Area Newspapers for Genealogy

Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner continues her series examining newspapers in various regions of the U.S. – and how helpful they are for your genealogy – focusing on newspapers in the Great Lakes area. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

Newspapers are the ancestors of social media. Before the internet, newspapers were how people learned the goings-on of their community and the world. What made it into the newspapers was of local interest, so reading newspapers from your ancestors’ time and place gives you a glance into their daily lives.

Newspapers in the Great Lakes area include both English and foreign language newspapers. Newspapers may contain birth, marriage, divorce, and death announcements for your ancestors. They may also contain social information, legal notices, estate sales and settlements, advertising, delinquent tax lists, coroner inquests, and other information of interest to the community at that time – and of tremendous interest to genealogists today.

These newspaper articles can be especially helpful if a courthouse or other records repository was destroyed, plus they can give clues leading to other records – as I’ll show at the end of this article. I’ll present a genealogy case study from one of the newspapers in this area to show just how helpful these papers can be to your own family history research.

  • Ohio began publishing newspapers a decade before it became a state: the Centinel of the North-Western Territory was first published in 1793.
  • Indiana’s first newspaper, the Indiana Gazette, began publication in 1804.
  • Michigan published the Michigan Essay or Impartial Observer on 31 August 1809 for one single edition. Its first continuous publication was the Detroit Gazette eight years later. The most important articles in this paper were also printed in French on the last page.
  • Illinois published its first newspaper, the Illinois Herald, in 1814.
  • Wisconsin’s first newspaper, the Green Bay Intelligencer, was first published in 1833.

A four-page newspaper in the Great Lakes region in 1833 cost $2 annually. This is equivalent to about $66 today.

Indiana requires its county recorders to maintain bound volumes of all newspapers published in their jurisdiction, and to have these available for public use. This goes back as early as the mid-nineteenth century.

Additionally, many historical and genealogical societies, and local libraries, have microfilms of old newspapers and books of newspaper abstracts (which usually contain birth, marriage, and death announcements). Thanks to the internet, many newspapers are available online, including the more than 13,000 newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives

GenealogyBank’s newspapers are divided into two collections, each with their own search page:

  • Newspaper Archives (complete paper with all articles, including historical obituaries, with a number of very rare single-issue newspapers – many of them are the only known issues of the paper)
  • Obituaries (including both historical and recent obituaries, if obits are specifically what you are searching for)

GenealogyBank currently has the following from the Great Lakes states:

  • Illinois: 596 newspapers, including newspaper archives and obituaries from 1818 to the present
  • Indiana: 248 newspapers, including newspaper archives and obituaries from 1804 to the present
  • Michigan: 283 newspapers, including newspaper archives and obituaries from 1817 to the present
  • Ohio: 497 newspapers, including newspaper archives and obituaries from 1795 to the present
  • Wisconsin: 239 newspapers, including newspaper archives and obituaries from 1833 to the present

GenealogyBank adds new newspapers (and more issues from newspapers already in the collection) constantly, so our newspaper coverage keeps growing.

Case Study: Mary and Hiram Weidman

On 20 June 1889, a notice was published in the Canton Repository indicating that Mary Weidman wanted to divorce her husband, Hiram, for “drunkenness and extreme cruelty.” The date and place of the divorce notice give a clue on where to look for court records.

An article about Mary Weidman, Canton Repository newspaper article 20 June 1889
Canton Repository (Canton, Ohio), 20 June 1889, page 5

With the information from this newspaper article, I did a search on FamilySearch in a non-indexed database for court records about their divorce. Having an idea of when and where the divorce took place was very helpful in browsing through the court records.

In those court records, we learn that Mary A. Weidman and Hiram Weidman married on 29 October 1871.* Just as the information from the newspaper article helped me find the relevant court record, I used the information from the court record to search GenealogyBank to find their marriage announcement. It was published in the Canton Repository on 3 November 1871. Here we learn an additional, and very important, piece of family history – Mary’s maiden name: Rutter.

An article about Mary Weidman, Canton Repository newspaper article 3 November 1871
Canton Repository (Canton, Ohio), 3 November 1871, page 3

Other additional information about the Weidmans can be found in their divorce records. They had two children together: Ella, age sixteen; and Harry, age twelve. Mary’s reasons for wanting to divorce Hiram were: 1) habitual drunkenness; 2) gross neglect of duty toward family by failing to provide for them; and 3) extreme cruelty toward Mary including calling her vile names and threatening her.

Additional details to these complaints indicate that Hiram was in good health and able bodied but wasted his time in idleness; Mary and the children had to provide for themselves while Hiram lived off their earnings; and any money Hiram did earn was squandered on drinking. Additionally, his threats made her life miserable.

Some of the information in the court papers include lists of their property. Mary stated she didn’t own any property to her knowledge. It also lists their household goods, which included furniture, bedding, a cooking stove, cooking utensils, and a sewing machine.

The divorce proceedings, from Mary filing her petition to the final court ruling, went on from May until October 1889. In her petition, Mary requested a divorce, alimony, and custody of her children.

The final ruling was that the marriage contract was dissolved, Hiram would pay Mary $300 in alimony, Mary should possess the household goods, and Hiram would have custody of the children.

If a modern family in their situation were to divorce, the wife would get custody of the children. The late nineteenth century was a time when it was expected that the husband was the main financial provider for the family, and it was a time when any woman in the workforce was single and childless. Single, working moms were not common until the twentieth century.

With these two newspaper articles from the Great Lakes area, we have started to compile the names, dates, and stories of Mary Weidman’s life, and found clues that help guide further research. This is the excitement – and the importance – of using newspapers for genealogy. Good luck with your own family history research!

* Ohio, Stark County court records 1809-1917, common pleas court records 1889 vol. 110, images 328-333, Weidman Mary A vs. Weidman H, “petition [for divorce],” 6 May 1889; digital images, FamilySearch (http://FamilySearch.org: accessed 20 December 2021).

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